Chapter 1: The Attack
I remember the windows rattling. As a child in the suburb of Edmond, about 15 miles north of downtown, our house shook with the blast. The story would draw international headlines: the most deadly terrorist attack on American soil, a title it would hold for six years. Terror had come to Oklahoma City.
Today, a beautiful museum stands on the site of the blast, chronicling the attack, the apprehension of the terrorist and remembering the lives lost. I was moved to tears (not misty-eyed, somber man-tears either) by a charred keychain, emblazoned with the face of Eskimo Joe, an Oklahoma icon and the mascot of a restaurant chain endemic to Stillwater, my college town.
It is only human to process tragedy in terms of ourselves, and it is unnatural, upon death in one’s own tribe, to maintain the cosmopolitan perspective. The event has been a part of my reality since my youth, and in such cases it is often hard to separate and analyze something in a new way. But recent violence in my country, first a Christmas Day bombing in my beloved Nashville followed by riots at the Capitol in DC, invites a remembrance of the toll of anarchy.
The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, named in memory of a prominent Oklahoma judge, was home to several government agencies, and perhaps most famously, a daycare. A truck parked outside the building was filled with almost 5,000 pounds of combustible materials, and was detonated at 9:02 AM. 168 people were killed, though an unmatched leg caused some investigators to place the death toll at 169. Hundreds more were injured, hundreds of buildings were damaged, and hundreds of millions in property damage was incurred in an instant. Among the dead were 19 children, 99 government employees, and one rescue worker who was struck later by shifting debris.
Shortly after the attacks, President Bill Clinton headlined a memorial service in Oklahoma City. He offered condolences on behalf of the American people and promised swift justice to the then unknown terrorists.
“You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything. You have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you, for as many tomorrows as it takes.”
— President Clinton, in his address on April 23, 1995
Chapter 2: The Terrorist
Very few tomorrows were required. Though the full resources of the United States government would have been available to assist in the subsequent manhunt, the search was over before it began. No chase, no shootout.
In an unrelated event, Timothy McVeigh was pulled over by an Oklahoma State Trooper shortly after the bombing for driving a vehicle with no license plate. He was arrested for the infraction as well as for having an unlicensed concealed weapon. Materials related to the attack were later found in his vehicle. Additionally, enough of the bomb truck was salvaged to reconstruct its Vehicle Identification Number, and this unique identifier was used to trace it to a rental location in Kansas. Investigators were then also able to link this rental to McVeigh.
Officer Charlie Hanger of Perry, Oklahoma, a small town about an hour north of the city, a straight shot up I-35, was on his way to the capital to assist with search and rescue. He received new orders to stay just a few minutes into his drive, so turned back northbound up the interstate. It was then that he saw a 1977 Mercury Marquis driving with no license plate. He ordered it to pull over and approached the driver’s side.
In the car he saw McVeigh, a 26 year old white male with a military style haircut, a dead ringer for a young Eminem. He was wearing a T-shirt with the famous Latin phrase “Sic semper tyrannis,” thus ever to tyrants, the same refrain attributed to John Wilkes Booth as he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Hanger was at first prepared to let McVeigh go with a ticket, but two things caught his attention.
First, McVeigh had told Hanger he was in the process of moving, but he had no suitcases, bags, furniture or any other evidence immediately visible in the vehicle. And then, the real nail in McVeigh’s coffin, the outline of a weapon inside his tight-fitting windbreaker. Hanger drew his own weapon and put it to McVeigh’s head while reaching inside the vehicle to confiscate the concealed pistol.
“My gun is loaded,” McVeigh said.
“So is mine,” Hanger responded.
Hanger escorted McVeigh to the Noble County Courthouse in Perry without incident. He turned on the radio to follow coverage of the bombing, but it did not inspire any comment from the prisoner and Hanger has since said that he never considered that there might be a connection between his perp and the attack.
“Looking back later at who I was dealing with, what could have happened — that was more frightening than what happened that day,” Hanger later recounted to the LA Times. “I often run the whole scenario back through my mind to see if there was something I missed, something I should have picked up on, and I’m just glad I didn’t let him go.”
Hanger would be elected sheriff of Noble County in 2004. McVeigh’s jalopy is on display in the museum at the Oklahoma City National Memorial.
McVeigh rented the truck used in the bombing under an assumed name, Robert Kling. He used this same name to order Chinese food to his hotel room, a room signed for by a Timothy McVeigh, instantly connecting his alias to his real identity. Investigators had this sorted out by nightfall on the day of the attack, and when the FBI ran its initial check on McVeigh, they found he was already in jail for the traffic stop. Three days after the attack, the duration of which McVeigh spent in jail, he was named the chief suspect.
The bungled attempt to establish an alias also defused one of the defense’ few possible lines of argument, that it was not McVeigh but in fact Robert Kling who had carried out the attacks. The rental shop owner was also able to identify McVeigh as Kling.
It was maverick Oklahoma attorney Stephen Jones who would ultimately take up the daunting task of trying to defend McVeigh. But McVeigh already had his own defensive strategy in mind: the threat of violence posed by the federal government was so great that preemptive violence was his only option. This view was based on McVeigh’s belief that the government had used unnecessary lethal force at the Siege of Waco and Ruby Ridge, both incidents in the years preceding the bombing that featured controversial use of violence. McVeigh was likely more interested in creating an opportunity to air his political philosophy than legitimately hoping to be exonerated. Jones, of course, refused to indulge McVeigh’s uncompelling strategy.
Instead, Jones argued that McVeigh, while guilty, was part of a larger conspiracy for which he was being made the fall man. He would argue that researching, gathering and assembling the raw materials, in addition to planning and executing the attack, represented too great a challenge for one man, and for McVeigh in particular as he was not a weapons specialist.
Moreover, Jones would argue, several elements of the investigation had been mishandled or otherwise contaminated, rendering certain elements of the prosecution’s arsenal inadmissible. And, desperate to name a suspect and get a quick conviction in a case of such enormous national intrigue, investigators may have been willing to cut corners to pin the attacks on McVeigh.
It did come to light that McVeigh had been joined by at least one co-conspirator. Terry Nichols, though at his home in Kansas during the attack, was found to have helped McVeigh in the orchestration. He was sentenced to many lives in prison. McVeigh, for his part, was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to death by lethal injection.
The trial was moved to Denver to preserve, if possible, impartiality for McVeigh, but this ultimately made no difference. In 1997, President Bill Clinton enacted legislation preventing veterans convicted of capital crimes from being buried in military cemeteries, in part as a response to McVeigh’s prominence as ex-military. He was put to death in 2001 at a high security facility in Indiana, the first execution of a federal prisoner since 1963.
Chapter 3: The Memorial
The bombing is memorialized in an annual marathon in OKC, which attracts thousands of runners as well as professional marathoners from around the world. The victims are also honored by an impressive museum and memorial park, the latter open 24/7/365. Two gates bookend the complex, each stamped with a time. The eastern gate reads 9:01, the western gate 9:03, with the expanse between designed to represent the moment of the attack, 9:02 AM.
The most dazzling and most somber features of the park are directly adjacent: a serene reflecting pool and 168 empty chairs, made of bronze and stone, with glass bases illuminated from within by night. Each chair features the name of a victim, and they are ordered in nine rows not only to represent the nine floors of the building, but also to denote the floor each person worked on, plus a row of five to honor those who died outside of the building itself. Smaller chairs were made for each child, and three chairs carry two names: one for a pregnant mother, one for her unborn.
The shocking number of child casualties was one of the most prominent talking points in coverage of the attacks, and the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of fireman Chris Fields holding a dying child became an iconic image of the bombing. McVeigh claimed in court that he had not known that the building was home to a day care, but testimony from FBI investigators on his scouting of the target showed that it would have been virtually impossible to miss the daycare in even a cursory walk through.
An additional small memorial was constructed from pieces of the building that remained usable, and it has appropriately become known as the Survivor’s Wall, dedicated to those who suffered but survived the attack. A large tree in the parking lot survived the blast as well, and naturally came to be known as the Survivor Tree, a symbol of the spirit of the city in the aftermath of tragedy. The tree serves as the logo for the Memorial and the attached marathon.
Chapter 4: The Message
I once had the honor of visiting the 9/11 Memorial in New York, and one feature of the complex is a nearby church that survived the blast and served as an onsite HQ for rescuers and medical personnel. When I visited, in 2012, there was a banner hanging prominently in the atrium of the church: “To New York City and all the rescuers: keep your spirits up. Oklahoma loves you!!”
I felt an instant jolt of grief and pride. In a time when what it means to be an American seems so controversial, I assert that this is what it means to be an American:
Language is among the most powerful of mankind’s creations, and as Wittgenstein said, the limits of language shape the limits of our world. We do not have access to ideas our language cannot yet express, and our political culture is prominently influenced by the use of language to vilify people and criminalize points of view. But as surely as language can be weaponized, so too can it be used to encourage, remember and rebuild.
In his address to the American people delivered from Oklahoma City on April 23, then-President Clinton showed as much.
“Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life. As St. Paul admonished us, Let us “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Thus reads the inscription on the gates guarding the Memorial:
“We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.”
The United States has experienced a flurry of domestic terrorism in recent weeks, first in Music City and then in what President Biden aptly called the “citadel of liberty.” My hope for the nation is that the Oklahoma City bombing serves as a powerful reminder of the lasting scars of political violence, and that we renew our commitment to maintaining the greatest democracy in the history of the world.